Rising out of the plains to the west of the Great North Road, the Waterberg was until recently one of the least known of South Africa’s significant massifs. During the past decade, however, it has been “discovered” by Johannesburgers, and is now a hugely popular weekend destination. Once an area of lakes and swamps – hence its name – the elevated plateau can often seem as dry as its surrounding northern bushveld, yet it harbours a diversity of vegetation and topography that for years supported extensive farming and cattle-ranching. In recent times, the majority of the old ranches have been converted into private reserves catering either for the hugely lucrative hunting market, or less profitable game viewing, with white rhino often the star attraction, along with giraffe, large antelope and leopard. Today the entire area, some 14,500 square kilometres of both private and publicly owned land, is encompassed by one of the country’s foremost conservation projects – the Waterberg Savanna Biosphere Reserve (waterbergbiosphere.org), designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 2001. It was founded by a close-knit association of landowners who wished to combine wildlife conservation with the benefits of tourism. They have set up an extensive management plan for the area, developing various remarkable tourism initiatives, such as the useful GPS sign boarding that now helps navigation in the tricky area.
As a game-viewing destination, the Waterberg makes a decent alternative to the lowveld areas around Kruger National Park, with the important advantage that malaria isn’t present. It has impressive credentials as a vast area of true wilderness, and it is certainly still a lot less commercialized than Kruger. Vaalwater – the only settlement of any size – is located at the heart of the biosphere reserve. West of Vaalwater, and also included within the biosphere reserve, are two large game reserves that are home to the Big Five: Marakele National Park and the privately owned Welgevonden reserve. North of Vaalwater is the highly regarded Lapalala Wilderness Area, where the biosphere reserve was originally instigated.
The only reserve you can visit for a game-viewing day-trip under your own steam is Marakele National Park; Lapalala Wilderness Area can be visited with a guide from Waterberg Cottages. Otherwise, to gain access to the reserves, large or small, you’ll almost always be expected to book into accommodation on the reserve itself; as most accommodation in the Waterberg is on reserves, this is generally hard to avoid.